25 April 2010

With the saints before the Throne of the Lamb

The calling of Saint Nathanael, also identified with Saint Bartholomew … a window in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 25 April 2010, the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin

11 a.m.: Solemn Eucharist

Acts 9: 36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7: 9-17; John 10: 22-30

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is particularly nice to be back in Saint Bartholomew’s this morning, and to join you in celebrating the Eucharist.

This has been a very busy few weeks in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and the last intake of B.Th. students are about to begin their exams tomorrow morning.

So, it’s good to back in a parish like this on this weekend, and to be reminded what parish life is truly about, and to be reminded of the standards we should be seeking in liturgy.

After my last visit, I was re-reading Kenneth Milne’s history of this church, published almost 50 years ago. But I failed to discover why this church was named Saint Bartholomew’s. Nor does Peter Costello tell us why in his book, Dublin Churches.

I can’t imagine it was because the founding figures wanted to provide a landmark memorial for the French Huguenot martyrs massacred in Paris in 1572. Nor was the Church dedicated on Saint Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August – it was dedicated on Ascension Day.

Nor is Saint Bartholomew a particularly happy apostle to illustrate in iconography – it is said he was skinned to death. The symbol used for him in Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Wednesbury in the Diocese of Lichfield is three flaying knives, and there is a gruesome, skeletal statue of him in the Duomo in Milan, holding his own skin.

I think the more probable reason is connected with the fact that in the mid or late 19th century, Saint Bartholomew was one of the few apostles who had yet to have a church named in his honour in this diocese. Already we had churches names after Peter [Aungier Street], Andrew [Suffolk Street, Lucan and Malahide], James [Saint James’s Street], John [Fishamble Street, Clondalkin, Coolock, Mounttown and later Sandymount], Philip [Milltown and Booterstown], Matthew [Irishtown], Thomas [Marlborough Street, Mulhuddart and later Mount Merrion], James [Booterstown], Jude [Kilmainham], as well as Matthias [Ballybrack, 1835, and Hatch Street, 1843] … but there was none yet named after Simon or after Bartholomew, who is also identified with Nathanael – nor, for that matter, after Judas.

At the time this parish was shaping its particular identity and its place within tradition. An important statement was being made about the Church of Ireland and our claim to be heirs to the full apostolic legacy of the church – not just part of it.

So this church could have been named Saint Simon’s or Saint Nathanael’s. Perhaps those involved in forming this parish, as they thought of images of Saint Bartholomew, thought they too that they were in danger, metaphorically speaking, of being skinned alive in those days of antagonism and vitriol when it came to differences in churchmanship.

But, of course, they also reminded us that we are part of the Communion of Saints – not just one part of it, but part of the whole Communion of Saints, heirs to the full apostolic legacy of the Church.

I am surprised that there so many churches in the Church of Ireland named after saints – apostles or the saints of these islands – but that are reluctant to give thanks in the intercessions to the witness and legacy of the saints over the generations and over the centuries.

And our readings this morning tell us in different ways how the Church and the Communion of Saints are one.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, it may appear first of all to be yet another miracle story. But it is also a story about the Communion of Saints. Tabitha, or Dorcas, whether she is dead or alive, is part of the praying, believing, living community of Christians, and the saints who are all called into her presence are called into new life (Acts 9: 41).

She is going to die, eventually, just like Lazarus, or the daughter of Jairus. This is a story reminding us that in death or in life, the Communion of Saints are bound together in faith, love and hope, and this bond is never broken.

The saints coming before the Lamb on the Throne … from the Ghent Altarpiece

In our reading from the Book of Revelation, we are reminded that the Communion of Saints is drawn from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. All are gathered together, across time and space, breaking down all the barriers of history and discrimination, to give blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might to the Lamb of God (Revelation 7: 9, 12).

In our Gospel reading, we are told that the saints, those who have eternal life, are those who hear Christ’s voice, answer his call, follow him and do his will. He knows them, they know him, and they have the promise of eternal life (John 10: 22-30).

Recent Popes have been criticised for choosing as saints for canonisation those who often appear to set an impossible ideal for the saints alive. Not that I want to deny the holiness or sanctity of anyone who has been canonised in recent years.

But how long will it take before we see the canonisation of a pastorally caring and self-sacrificing bishop like Oscar Romero, who was martyred 30 years ago last month? How long before popes become ecumenically adventurous and recognise as saints great martyrs of the Christian faith such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King?

The recognition of relevant exemplars as saints is still a living tradition in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

In 1958, the Lambeth Conference, speaking about the commemoration of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church in the Anglican Communion, said saints should be scriptural, or those whose historical character and devotion are beyond doubt. In other words, they have been exemplars of how to answer Christ’s call and to do his will.

The ten statues above the West Door of Westminster Abbey representing modern saints and martyrs (from left): Maximilian Kolbe, Manche Masemola, Archbishop Janani Luwum, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Esther John, Lucian Tapiedi, Wang Zhiming

Have you ever looked up in recent years at the West Front of Westminster Abbey? It now contains the statues of ten 20th century martyrs including the Polish Franciscan martyr, Maximillian Kolbe, Martin Luther King, who was assassinated in 1968; Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was assassinated in Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror.

Those niches had been left empty from the late Middle Ages until the statues were unveiled in 1998. The other saints and martyrs that now fill those niches are: Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Manche Masmeola, a 16-year-old South Africa catechist killed by her mother; Esther John, an evangelist murdered in Pakistan by her brother; Wang Zhiming, who was murdered during the Cultural Revolution in China, and Lucian Tapiedi – one of the oft-neglected 12 Anglican martyrs from New Guinea.

Many of these modern saints and martyrs were commemorated already in the chapel in Canterbury Cathedral where Archbishop Robert Runcie and Pope John Paul knelt together in prayer in 1982.

The calendar of the Church of England commemorates not only English saints, but Irish saints that have yet to make an appearance in any calendar of the Church of Ireland, including: Jeremy Taylor (13 August), Bishop of Connor, Down and Dromore; and Mother Harriet O’Brien Monsell (1811-1883, 26 March), from Dromoland, Co Clare, sister of the Irish patriot William Smith O’Brien and founder of the Clewer Sisters after she was widowed. In the US, the Calendar of the Episcopal Church includes CS Lewis (22 November), who, of course, was born in Belfast.

I was taking part in a memorial service yesterday in the Unitarian Church in Saint Stephen’s Green. I find it difficult to grasp what Unitarians may mean by the Communion of Saints. But in the main stained-glass windows they had images of Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, Florence Nightingale and William Caxton, portrayed as if they were the patron saints of discovery, truth, love and work.

Why do we have a problem in the Church of Ireland in remembering saints other that the Apostles and the founding figures of our dioceses and great monasteries?

In one of my favourite churches in the Diocese of Lichfield, I have been asked to preach on the day Jeremy Taylor was remembered in the calendar of the Church of England. But I have been impressed too by the way that church has also remembered graciously and with dignity Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, giving thanks for his role in helping to shape Anglicanism as we know and love and cherish it today, and for his contributions to the beauty of literary English through his Collects and the Book of Common Prayer.

Why do we have difficulty in the Church of Ireland, even to this day, in remembering the saints of Ireland, never mind the saints of the wider Church?

We have no place, yet, for Irish Anglican saints such as William Bedell, Jeremy Taylor, Harriet Monsell or CS Lewis, never mind other Anglicans like Thomas Cranmer and Janani Luwum, Roman Catholics like Maximillian Kolbe and Oscar Romero, Lutherans like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Baptists like Martin Luther King.

If you were to pick your own modern saints, the saints who had influenced you in your faith journey, modern exemplars of Christian faith and discipleship, who would you name?

The late Bishop John Yates (1925-2008), who, as a canon of Lichfield Cathedral, first prompted me to think about ordination when I was only a 19-year-old …

Two former rectors of Wexford, Canon Eddie Grant and Canon Norrie Ruddock, who did the same …

Dietrich Bonhoeffer …

Martin Luther King …

Colin O’Brien Winter, the exiled Bishop of Namibia, who combined his pacifism with a firm resistance to apartheid, racism and militarism …

Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, the priest who first showed me what engaged discipleship really demands, and the cost of it …

I truly enjoy the way Greeks and other Orthodox Christians put a greater emphasis on celebrating their name days than their birthdays. For when we join the saints in glory before the Lamb on the Throne, the only birthday that will matter will be the day in which we join that wonderful company of saints.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Clyde Road, Dublin, on Sunday 25 April 2010.

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